Satellite Reveals Venus’ Mysterious Night Side

Posted: Sep 16 2017, 10:57pm CDT | by , Updated: Sep 17 2017, 1:56am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Satellite Reveals Venus’ Mysterious Night Side
Credit: ESA

Study shows that the atmosphere on Venus' night side behaves very differently to that on the dayside of the planet

Venus is a world of toxic atmosphere and intense heat. In fact, it is the most hostile planet in our solar system with surface temperature hot enough to melt lead.

In the spirit of learning more about the complexities of Venus’ system, researchers recently looked at the night side of the planet and found that the atmosphere on Venus' night side behaves very differently to that on the dayside of the planet. It exhibits unexpected cloud types, structures, and dynamics, some of which are never seen before.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to characterize how the atmosphere circulates on the night side of Venus on a global scale,” said lead study author Javier Peralta of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

"While the atmospheric circulation on the planet's dayside has been extensively explored, there was still much to discover about the night side. We found that the cloud patterns there are different to those on the dayside, and influenced by Venus' topography."

The atmosphere of Venus is dominated by powerful winds that circulate around the planet once every four Earth days. One would expect the planet to rotate with the same rhythm, but it takes about 243 Earth days to complete one rotation. The phenomenon is called super rotation and it causes an extreme level of turbulences in Venus’ atmosphere, accelerating the wind speeds of upper atmosphere and dragging along clouds.

“We've spent decades studying these super-rotating winds by tracking how the upper clouds move on Venus' dayside–these are visible in images acquired in ultraviolet light. However, our models of Venus remain unable to reproduce this super-rotation, which indicates that we might be missing some pieces of this puzzle,” said Peralta.

“We focused on the night side because it had been poorly explored; we can see the upper clouds on the planet’s night side via their thermal emission, but it’s been difficult to observe them properly because the contrast in our infrared images was too low to pick up enough detail.”

For the new study, researchers used the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS) on ESA's Venus Express spacecraft, which allowed them to see clouds closely for the first time. They found that planet’s curios super-rotating atmosphere becomes more irregular and chaotic on the night side. Night side upper clouds form different shapes and morphologies than those observed anywhere else on the planet.

"It was an exciting moment when we realized that some of the cloud features in the VIRTIS images didn't move along with the atmosphere," said Peralta. "We had a long debate about whether the results were real–until we realized that another team, led by co-author Dr. Kouyama, had also independently discovered stationary clouds on the night side using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) in Hawaii! Our findings were confirmed when JAXA's Akatsuki spacecraft was inserted into orbit around Venus and immediately spotted the biggest stationary wave ever observed in the Solar System on Venus' dayside."

European Space Agency’s Venus Express arrived at the planet in 2006 and had been studying Venus’ turbulent atmosphere ever since. New observations, however, raise questions about the accuracy of available climate models.

“This study challenges our current understanding of climate modeling and, specifically, the super-rotation, which is a key phenomenon seen at Venus," said Håkan Svedhem, ESA Project Scientist for Venus Express. "Additionally, it demonstrates the power of combining data from multiple different sources.

"This is a significant result for VIRTIS and for Venus Express, and is very important for our knowledge of Venus as a whole."

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